Conran plans return to his natural Habitat: Sir Terence in talks with prospective bidders for the loss-making furniture business

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The Independent Online
THE MAN who encouraged a generation of young home-owners to sleep under brightly coloured duvets, put directors' chairs in their living rooms and wash their chunky mugs in pastel washing up bowls wants to try and work the old magic again.

Twenty-eight years after he opened his first Habitat store, Sir Terence Conran is planning a comeback. 'I am in discussion with several people who are interested in putting in bids for Habitat,' he told the Independent on Sunday.

He added: 'I would be prepared to stand alongside anyone who wished to acquire it.'

Sir Terence said he believed the chain, which has lost pounds 20m in the last two years, could bounce back. 'It is probably too strong to say Habitat could be reborn, but certainly it can be revived.'

He said he was talking to two groups of bidders, one interested in acquiring Habitat in the UK and another that was also considering buying both the chain's UK operations and the highly successful French business.

However, Sir Terence specifically ruled out any interest in purchasing Habitat in the US, which lost pounds 7.7m last year and has formally been put up for sale.

The 60-year-old design guru, whose personal fortune has plummeted from almost pounds 200m five years ago to an estimated pounds 30m or less today, said he would be prepared to take a small stake in a buy-back attempt.

Since resigning from Storehouse, Habitat's owner, last year, he has concentrated on running what he describes as 'probably London's currently most successful store' (The Conran Shop) and 'certainly three of London's most successful restaurants' (Bibendum, Le Pont de la Tour and Blueprint Cafe).

Another Conran Shop will open in Paris shortly, while in London he is adding a smoked fish shop, Cantina, another restaurant and Quaglino's. Billed as 'the biggest brasserie in London', Quaglino's will seat 400 people. He also has Benchmark, a furniture business, and is chairman of the Design Museum.

He refused to name the people he had been talking to. But potential purchasers for Habitat are thought to include Antah European Holdings, the Malaysian- owned private company that runs the 50- strong chain of Carpenters furniture stores in the south of England, and the management of the Habitat shops in France.

Storehouse has not officially announced that Habitat is for sale. But ever since the group, which also owns BhS, Mothercare, Richards and Blazer, announced the appointment of its new chief executive, David Dworkin, three months ago, speculation about its future has been rife.

In the year to the end of March, Storehouse reported profits of pounds 15.8m, more than double the 1991 figure. With Habitat and Mothercare both making losses, the group was saved from plunging into deficit by a sparkling performance from BhS, Mr Dworkin's stable.

Storehouse insiders say that since taking charge, Mr Dworkin has begun to refocus the group on clothing and fashion, with BhS as the central core business. Goldman Sachs is understood to have been appointed to handle the sale of Habitat.

A senior Storehouse executive said he expected that Habitat in the UK and France could together fetch pounds 100m.

Sara Carter of Smith New Court said she would be very surprised if anyone would be prepared to pay more than pounds 50m. 'Habitat France is stagnating while the UK is not making money,' she said. The 'big question', she added, is whether the UK side can ever make money again.

(Photograph omitted)

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